A dozen heads craned forward. Ali's eyes widened in shock. "I freed the whooo?" he blurted to the nearly all-white audience. High, nervous laughter filled the room.
"I saw Joe Frazier in Philly last week," a voice nearby said quietly.
Ali's eyes grew wide again. "Joe Fraysha?" he whispered.
He has known for years of Frazier's anger and bitterness toward him, but he knows nothing of the venom that coursed through Frazier's recent autobiography, Smokin' Joe. Of Ali, Frazier wrote, "Truth is, I'd like to rumble with that sucker again—beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus.... Now people ask me if I feel bad for him, now that things aren't going so well for him. Nope. I don't. Fact is, I don't give a damn. They want me to love him, but I'll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him."
Nor does Ali know what Frazier said after watching him, with his trembling arm, light the Olympic flame: "It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in."
Nor does Ali know of Frazier's rambling diatribe against him at a July 30 press conference in Atlanta, where Frazier attacked the choice of Ali, the Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist in 1960 and a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, as the final bearer of the torch. He called Ali a "dodge drafter," implied that Ali was a racist ("He didn't like his white brothers," said Frazier) and suggested that he himself—also an Olympic champion, as a heavyweight, in 1964—would have made a better choice to light the flame: "Why not? I'm a good American.... A champion is more than making noise. I could have run up there. I'm in shape."
And while Frazier asserts at one turn that he sees "the hand of the Lord" in Ali's Parkinson's syndrome (a set of symptoms that include tremors and a masklike face), he also takes an eerily mean-spirited pride in the role he believes he played in causing Ali's condition. Indeed, the Parkinson's most likely traces to the repealed blows Ali took to the head as a boxer—traumas that ravaged the colony of dopamine-producing cells in his brain—and no man struck Ali's head harder and more repeatedly than Frazier.
"He's got Joe Frazier-itis," Frazier said of Ali one day recently, flexing his left arm. "He's got left-hook-itis."
Ali's wife, Lonnie, shields him from such loutish and hateful pronouncements. "I don't want him hearing negative things," Lonnie says. "It's trash."
Ali has been living rent free in Frazier's head for more than 25 years, ever since Ali—after being stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the U.S. Army, and then serving a 3½-year suspension from boxing—emerged from his banishment and immediately set about regaining his title, which by then was held by Smokin' Joe. At Ali's urgent pleading, Frazier backed him in his fight to regain his boxing license, but no sooner had that been accomplished than Ali began cruelly berating his benefactor, a man who had grown up mule-poor in Beaufort, S.C., the son of a struggling farmer and bootlegger. The young Frazier had migrated to Philly, taken up boxing and become the precursor of Rocky Balboa, training by tenderizing sides of beef in a kosher slaughterhouse with his sibilant left hook.